Why do we wear wristwatches?


A rare yellow gold Patek Philippe wristwatch, on display at a Sotheby's auction preview in Geneva, Switzerland.
A rare yellow gold Patek Philippe wristwatch, on display at a Sotheby's auction preview in Geneva, Switzerland.
Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

If you're of a certain age, you probably consider a wristwatch an essential piece of your wardrobe. But would it surprise you to learn that hasn't always been the case? If so, prepare to have your mind blown: In fact, wristwatches have been widely worn for less than 100 years.

Some trend watchers think that wristwatches may be going out of style already, consigned to the dustbin of history by advanced technology. After all, who needs a wristwatch when our smart phones -- and even the most basic cell phones -- tell us the time with more consistent accuracy?

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Could wristwatches represent little more than a relatively brief technological phase- turned-historic-curiosity, something like eight-track tape players and telephone booths? Or are watchmakers figuring out ways to keep people buying and wearing watches on their wrists?

The future of the once-essential wristwatch may lie in the reasons we wear watches in the first place -- and those reasons may not be the same today as they were in the 20th century, when wristwatches first gained popularity.

How did watches find such an honored place on our wrists? Keep reading.

It's About Time

Time is of the essence. We're stressed for time. We're worried about being late. Time is money.

You hear these words every day. Time is so central to our lives that it's hard to understand that until the 18th century, most people didn't think much about time. For much of human history, we marked time by the changing seasons and the position of the sun in the sky. People used natural signs to keep track of what they needed to know and do. When groups of people needed to gather at certain times for various reasons -- religious services, for example -- they had public clocks, perhaps with hand-rung bells, to alert them. There was little sense that most individuals needed to keep close track of time, or at least by minutes and seconds, as we do today.

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Things began to change as society advanced through the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment and eventually the Industrial Revolution. As more people found work away from the home and farm, they needed to be at work on time. What's more, the rise of public transportation meant schedules and timetables that had to be kept.

Time became more important to individuals, but it took developments in science and technology to make time available to average people.

The earliest timekeepers were sundials, water clocks, hourglasses and cumbersome mechanical clocks with weights, springs, levers and bells. Pendulum clocks, developed in the 17th century, were more accurate, but their bulkiness didn't exactly tempt people to wear timepieces.

The development of coiled springs to move the hand (early watches had only hour hands) made it possible to make clocks smaller. Those that were made small enough to carry around were called watches. It's generally agreed that the earliest watches, made in the 1500s, were cumbersome and heavy. Some were worn on a belt around the waist and, later, as pendants. Eventually, pocket watches became popular.

The Industrial Revolution made interchangeable parts and mass production of relatively inexpensive clocks -- and, later, watches -- possible. Personal timepieces became more widely available to ordinary people, who needed them more as society changed. At the same time, the great houses that made expensive, finely crafted watches gained prominence.

Keep reading to learn how the watch migrated to the wrist.

Fashion and War

The back of a Patek Philippe wristwatch is reflected in a mirror at the 2009 Baselworld watch and jewelry show in Basel, Switzerland.
The back of a Patek Philippe wristwatch is reflected in a mirror at the 2009 Baselworld watch and jewelry show in Basel, Switzerland.
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Many sources credit Swiss watchmakers Pierre Jaquet-Droz and Jean-Frédéric Leschot as the first to make a watch to be worn on the wrist, in 1790 [sources: Tourneau, Jaquet-Droz]. They attached a watch to a woman's bracelet, but the idea didn't catch on.

Another fine Swiss watchmaker, Patek Philippe, is more widely credited with making the first wristwatch, in 1868. These watches were also for women, and were considered as much jewelry for wealthy women as accurate timepieces. They were often called wristlets. Later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, less expensive wristwatches gained popularity among women due to mass production.

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On the other hand, men preferred pocket watches, considering wristwatches ladylike because they would get in the way of a man's work.

More technological innovation -- and then war -- changed all that.

During the late 19th century, soldiers and sailors had problems carrying and using pocket watches at sea and on the battlefield. Some began improvising leather straps that would hold pocket watches on their wrists. Such watches were important in the German Imperial Navy in the 1880s and in the British victory in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa around the turn of the 20th century, where British soldiers used wristwatches to coordinate troops and plan precisely timed attacks on Boer forces [source: Rolex].

A pilot's lament led to a huge jump in the evolution of the wristwatch at the turn of the 20th century. Albert Santos Dumont was a Brazilian aviation pioneer who reportedly complained to his friend, watchmaker Louis Cartier, that it was difficult to use his pocket watch while flying, and begged for an alternative. In 1904, Cartier created a man's pocket watch with a leather strap and buckle to solve his friend's problem [source: Santos Dumont Aircraft Management].

A decade later, the pressures of modern warfare made more military leaders recognize the value of wristwatches, as soldiers in World War I wore wristwatches so they could keep track of time while using their hands. It was official: Wristwatches were now manly. Pocket watches became much less common by the mid-20th century.

Early handcrafted watches could be made for the left or right wrist. But as watches gained popularity, they were usually made for the left wrist because most people are right-handed, and they found it easier to wind the watch with their right hand. What's more, their right hand could keep working when they checked the time. By the time electronic watches came on the market, the style of wearing watches on the left wrist was set, although some lefties wear watches on their right wrists.

In the late 20th century, any well-dressed person usually wore a wristwatch. Read on to find out why.

The Golden Age of the Wristwatch

The 20th century was the golden era of the wristwatch. Mass production made them affordable for average people, and the First World War made them acceptable for men as well as women.

By the latter part of the 20th century, a watch was considered an essential part of the wardrobe for men and women. Many people had multiple watches: utilitarian models for sports and leisure; stylish models for business wear; and high-fashion, expensive styles for dress. For ladies, watches were available with interchangeable bands of colors and styles.

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Good watches became status symbols. Watches were favorite graduation presents. Often, an expensive gold watch was the standard retirement gift. Men, especially, bought fine watches to bequeath as family heirlooms.

Electronic watches that never needed winding were developed, and quartz movements made such watches so inexpensive by the 1970s, that some makers of fine watches went out of business. Popular digital watches such as Timex and Casio can cost just a few dollars. Fashion watches such as Swatch are popular and sell for under $100. Bulova still makes affordable watches, and Seiko, Citizen and Fossil watches start at around $100. On the higher end of the scale, Tissot and Lucien Picard watches run in the hundreds.

By the latter 20th century, no fashionable man would feel fully dressed without a respectable watch on his wrist. But watchmakers courted a market among people who treasure fine watches, and in the second decade of the 21st century, highly crafted mechanical watches are still selling for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Complicated watches with special mechanical features such as showing moon phases or tiny music boxes can sell for five or even six figures. And expensive ladies' watches decorated with jewels go back to the origin of the wristwatch as ornaments for wealthy women.

Among the leading fine watches today are names from wristwatch history such as Cartier and Patek Philippe. Rolex is probably the best-known higher-end watch. The Rolex Day-Date watch has been the choice of many American presidents. Some other luxury brands costing in the thousands -– in some cases, many thousands -- are Omega, Breitling, IWC , Panerai, Zenith, Jaeger LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin.

But early in the 21st century, a growing technology began to threaten wristwatches. Are cell phones making watches obsolete? Keep reading for some answers.

Is It Time to Say Goodbye to the Wristwatch?

You'd think that wristwatches are going the way of the dodo bird, but they're actually making a comeback.
You'd think that wristwatches are going the way of the dodo bird, but they're actually making a comeback.
Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

As the second decade of the 21st century dawned, many observers started writing obituaries for the wristwatch [source: Robson]. After all, nearly every adult -- and many children -- in the world owned a cell phone, and even the most basic cell phones tell the time. Why bother with a wristwatch if all you have to do is glance at your phone? People who had come of age in the glory days of the wristwatch were often reluctant to change their dress style, but many younger people never bothered to start wearing a watch. Of course, watch sales dropped: According to consumer research firm Experian Simmons, only 42 million Americans bought watches for themselves in 2011 -- a significant decrease from the 55 million who did so in 2004 [source: Goetz].

But by early 2012, there were signs that watches might make a comeback. In an ironic twist, cell phones used as timepieces have some of the same drawbacks that made men abandon pocket watches for the wrist versions a century ago. And that's not all: There are several trends that suggest that wristwatches might not be going the way of other technological dinosaurs after all:

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  • Some people find it inconvenient always to consult a phone to check the time. Sometimes – think business meetings, church, formal social settings, class rooms – it's considered inappropriate to pull out a phone. It's much easier to subtly check a wristwatch.
  • Let's face it: Some people tend to misplace their cell phones. If they always want to be able to check the time – and time is extremely important in our society – a watch strapped to the wrist is more reliable.
  • They're back in style. Watchmakers and retailers have successfully revived the notion of wristwatches as trendy accessories, including among teenagers.
  • Nostalgia is also a factor. Wristwatches now have a retro, vintage appeal, evoking memories of childhood or older relatives.
  • Watches are now collectibles. In an age of high-tech gizmos, people who can afford it often treasure the old-fashioned quality of a finely made mechanical watch. And people still like to pass high-end watches along as family heirlooms.

And finally, there are two seemingly contradictory trends helping watches survive.

On the one hand, as cell phones get ever smarter and offer such functions as calendars, calculators and stopwatches, some people are attracted to the simplicity of a nice-looking watch for the fashion or ornamental value. Remember, wristwatches started out more as jewelry than timepiece.

But on the other and, some watchmakers are going head-to-head with smart phones by making smart wristwatches. Some watches now offer global positioning. Others use Bluetooth technology to synchronize with smartphones and let a person to know with a glance at the wrist when a message or call arrives. One thing's for sure: Rumors of the wristwatch's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

For more information on the wristwatch and its history, take a look at the links on the next page.

Author's Note

I was interested in this topic because I've largely stopped wearing a watch. One reason is that my watch uses batteries faster than it should, but another is that I almost always have my smartphone available and use it as a timepiece. I took an informal survey by posting a question on Facebook. Out of about 30 responses, I found that people who tend to use their cell phones a lot are more likely to rely on them for the time. People who don't like cell phones or tend to misplace them still use watches. And then there are the people, mostly middle age, who say they simply "feel naked" without a wristwatch on.

The biggest revelation that came to me during my research was how short the history of wristwatches is. The generation that grew up in the mid-20th century is the main generation that grew up with wristwatches.. Their grandparents may not have had watches, and their parents probably did not until they were adults. And their children often never got into the habit of wearing wristwatches, relying instead on cell phones and other technology.

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Even though I rarely wear my watch, I was heartened by evidence I found that watches might survive changing times.

Related Articles

  • How Quartz Watches Work
  • How Digital Clocks Work
  • How Smart Watches Work
  • How Accurate Is My Watch?
  • How the Bulova Precisionist Works
  • How PDAs Work

Sources

  • Brozek, John E. "The History and Evolution of the Wristwatch." Rolex Articles. QualityTyme.Net. (April 25, 2012) http://www.qualitytyme.net/pages/rolex_articles/history_of_wristwatch.html
  • Goetz, Kaomi. "In Cell Era, Timepieces Are Fashion Trend to Watch." "All Things Considered," National Public Radio, April 20, 2012. (May 1, 2012) http://www.npr.org/2012/04/30/150719282/in-cell-era-timepieces-are-fashion-trend-to-watch
  • Gonzalez, Sarah. "It's Time: The Wristwatch Makes a Comeback." National Public Radio. Nov. 8, 2010. (May 1, 2012) http://www.npr.org/2010/11/08/131163403/its-time-the-wristwatch-makes-a-comeback
  • Jaquet-Droz. "The Story of the Jaquet-Drozs." (May 11, 2012) http://www.jaquet-droz.com/
  • Kirkland, Jeremy. "10 Watches Your Son Will (Want to) Own One day." Esquire. http://www.esquire.com/the-side/style-guides/heirloom-watches-2012#slide-1 (May 1, 2012)
  • National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, Inc. "History of Timepieces." (April 30, 2012) http://www.nawcc-index.net/History.php
  • Patek Philippe. "The history of Patek Philippe." (May 1, 2012)
  • http://www.patek.com/contents/default/en/timeline.html#timeline Robson, Nate. "Out of time: Siouxlanders let wrists go bare." Sioux City Journal, April 26, 2012. (April 27, 2012) http://siouxcityjournal.com/news/local/out-of-time-siouxlanders-let-wrists-go-bare/article_30a2b9a8-f855-5556-b8c6-ee7d0222ed52.html
  • Santelmann, Neal. "The World's Best Watches." Forbes. (May 2, 2012) http://www.forbes.com/2003/12/03/cx_ns_1203guide.html
  • Santos Dumont Aircraft Management. "Alberto Santos Dumont." (May 3, 2012) http://www.santosdumont.com/index.php/2008/07/09/who-was-santos-dumont/
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  • Scallan, Niamh. "Watch linked to smartphone keeps calls, emails and social media close to your fingertips," "The Toronto Star, April 17, 2012. (May 2, 2012) http://www.thestar.com/business/article/1162873--watch-linked-to-smartphone-keeps-calls-emails-and-social-media-close-to-your-fingertips
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